“An End of Condemnation”

John 3:14-21 and Numbers 21:4-9

Lent 4B, March 11, 2018

The Rev. Todd R. Goddard, Pastor

East Rochester & West Walworth: Zion United Methodist Churches

 

John 3:14-21

 

And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

 

 

Prayer.

 

We are a nation of complainers, aren’t we?

 

Teachers complain they aren’t getting enough pay;

Taxpayers complaining their taxes are too high.

One administration blames their predecessor or opponent;

The opposition does everything possible to obstruct.

Albany complains about Washington and

Washington complains about Albany.

 

We complain about potholes, police, polls, and pop quizzes.

We complain about rights, responsibility, and reason.

We complain about referees, officials, and umpires.

We complain about ex-boyfriends and girlfriends, ex-husbands and wives.

We complain about service, prices, and whether or not our steak is done just right.

We would even complain about the weather, if we ….

Oh, wait.

We complain about the weather all the time!

 

 

We complain because we can.

Free choice.

Freedom of speech.

More than just constitutional rights;

Free choice is a gift from God.

It is our responsibility

To chose wisely,

To behave wisely,

and to speak wisely.

 

It’s almost as if complaining about our lot in life is rooted in our DNA.

Our Hebrew ancestors were known to complain about everything.

Today, the Lord grew tired of their complaining

About no food, no water, and fear of death.

 

Fair warning to all those on the verge of complaining;

The Lord response to his own complaining, chosen people?

Was judgment,

Was condemnation,

Was to send them boat loads of poisonous serpents!

 

 

Talk to the hand!

Shut your pie hole!

Enough complaining!

Complainers will be bit, will be poisoned,

And will die a miserable, painful death, “ya filthy animals!”

 

Our ancestors got the message.

They stopped complaining,

Confessed their sin,

And begged for God’s mercy.

(Right there is sufficient material for a good three-point sermon!)

 

This, then is God’s mercy:

 

 

As per the Lord’s instruction,

Moses made a serpent of bronze,

Put it on a pole, and raised it up;

That anyone bitten by a poisonous snake

Might lift up their eyes,

Gaze upon it,

And be saved.

 

 

“So must the Son of Man be lifted up,” (3:14)

We hear proclaimed in the Gospel of John,

“That whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (3:15)

 

When we think of Christ being lifted up during this season of Lent,

Too often we limit our thoughts to his crucifixion.

Of course, the crucified Christ is lifted high upon a cross.

But, let us expand our imagination.

Christ is lifted from the grave.

Christ is lifted up into heaven,

Ascending to the right hand of the Heavenly Father.

 

To this day, the Gospel of John encourages us to lift up Jesus Christ,

That he might be glorified and praised.

When we lift up Jesus Christ, the Light of the World,

Darkness is chased away.

Shadows of sin and evil are washed away in God’s radiant light.

The light of Christ

Reveals his will for our lives,

Sets a moral compass in our for ourselves and our community,

And celebrates God’s values of justice, mercy, and love.

 

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There was a day and time in our not-too-distant past

 

 

That John 3:16 had such popularity

That nearly everyone in a crowd, atheist included,  

Could perfectly recite it:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,

so that everyone who believes in him may not perish

but may have eternal life.” (3:16)

Sadly, I’m not certain this is true any longer.

 

There isn’t any one verse in the Bible that says that God loves everyone,

But John 3:16 is pretty close.

God so loves the world …

God loves the people of this world,

And God loves the world He created

and in which we live and find happiness.

 

Just as God loves you and me,

So too does God love others.

We are to love others just as God loves others.

Just as God loves creation,

So too are we to love creation

Loving creating requires us,

Individually and corporately,

To practice good stewardship of creation.

Love and care for the world,

Because God loves and cares for the world.

 

The balancing statement that Jesus makes

Is even more obscure than the once well-known John 3:16.

It shouldn’t be.

 

 

“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world,

but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (3:17)

 

Free choice,

Free speech,

As we have seen,

Can get one into trouble,

Can lead to the darkness.

Once in the darkness, it’s hard to break out or break free.

It’s hard, and it gets harder return to the light the longer one lingers.

 

Quite clearly,

Jesus plants the stake in the ground by stating that

 

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Condemnation is not God’s will.

This is so important, it bears repeating:

Condemnation is not God’s will.

 

It wasn’t God’s will that those bitten by one of his poisonous snakes

Should be condemned to die.

Neither is it God’s will that those who live in the darkness

Should be eternally condemned to live in sin.

God may be in the justice business,

But, condemnation?

Not so much.

 

 

We condemn ourselves by choosing to live in darkness;

By making wrong choices when we know better,

By blaming and complaining,

By failing to take responsibility for our words.

By failing to discipline our actions.

 

Rather, God is in the salvation business.

God had Moses mount a bronze snake on a stick

That all who looked upon it might be saved.

God is in the salvation business,

That all who look upon Jesus and believe in him might be saved.

 

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I recall an old theological saw from my seminary days that states

 

 

“Grace may be free, but it isn’t cheap.”

What does this mean?

 

God’s grace,

The gift of salvation,

Is freely, lavishly, abundantly given.

You will not perish, Jesus promises.

You may have eternal life.

This is God’s gift.

This is what we call “grace.”

There is no price.

There is no expectation of reciprocity.

God just gives it away.

 

Grace is free, but it isn’t cheap.

 

But there is

 

 

one qualifying demand,

That we believe in Jesus Christ,

The Son of Man,

The Son of God.

 

Belief.

 

I’ve been a Christian all my life;

Since my infant baptism.

I’ve tried to follow Jesus every moment of every day,

Some days more successfully than others.

And, yet, I know

 

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That belief ebbs and flows like an ocean tide.

 

I’ve been around ordained ministry for the past 32 years.

I’ve been privileged to be surrounded by beacons of spirituality;

Mentors, guides, and fellow disciples traveling this river of faith.

Some towers of faith were ordained, many others, not.

 

At the same time

I’ve seen some of the most faithful stumble and fall,

Some spectacularly on the front page of the newspaper,

Others quietly fading away,

Others becoming utterly defeated

By sanity, addiction, end of life, money, power, or organized religion.

 

I can see no rhyme or reason;

No discernible patterns upon which conclusions can be drawn.

I refuse to stand in judgment of others.

I can only observe that which I intuitively feel in my own soul;

 

 

That belief isn’t a one-and-done proposition.

Belief is a life time, ongoing effort.

 

There but by the grace of God goes I,

I think to myself,

Because I know this to be true.

 

Whoever believes in Jesus

Will not perish

But may have eternal life.

 

Every day we are called to believe in Jesus.

 

Like maintaining a house or treating a patient,

Belief begins with assessment:

Where does my belief stand today?

Where was it yesterday?

What’s my trajectory of belief for tomorrow?

 

What assets do I have to shore up my faith?

To turn around negative trends?

What assets do I have internally,

And what assets must I obtain from the outside?

For example, I can pray and study scripture privately.

But I have to hold myself accountable

By taking part in communal, corporate worship each Sabbath.

 

Likewise,

What are the deficits in my life that impact negatively on my faith?

What can I do to reduce or eliminate

People, situations, or behaviors

That undermines my belief? 

 

Believe in Jesus.

Lord, help my unbelief!

Do not let me fall into the abyss!

 

Maintaining belief requires action.

We have to do something,

Discipline our behavior,

To even out

The ebbs and flows between faith and doubt.

Treatment doesn’t work if you don’t follow your doctor’s orders.

Your house doesn’t get repaired if your plans sit on the drawing board.

 

 

Belief in Jesus demands action.

 

Set yourself up for success.

Surround yourself with all the right people

And stop hanging around with the wrong crowd

That sabotage faith.
Learn from those who are more seasoned in the spiritual life.

Share with those who are traveling the journey with you.

Offer a hand up to those who are coming along behind.

Listen for the movement of the Spirit in your midst

And don’t be afraid to tap into its power.

 

Take action to strengthen belief in Jesus Christ!

 

Love God.

Love neighbors.

Love enemies.

Follow God’s rules.

Forgive, and be forgiven.

Use the power of the Holy Spirit to

Witness to the world

The Good News of Jesus Christ,

That all be made his disciples.

Teach newer disciples all that you’ve been taught.

Be God’s prophets today

To spread peace and justice throughout God’s kingdom.

 

Belief is an ongoing effort.

Go, and act accordingly.

 

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Lift up Christ.

Glorify and praise him

That his light might shine upon the world.

God brings justice to the world,

But the only condemnation is that which we bring.

May the light of Christ bring an end to our self-imposed sentence.

May the light of Christ save us.

Believe in Christ.

When doubt inevitably returns,

Oppose it with every effort.

 

 

Believe today.

Believe in Christ tomorrow.

Believe in Christ and receive eternity.

Amen.